Why Most Pastors Can’t Spot Churchgoing Couples Who Are Headed for Divorce

FJH Photography / Flickr
FJH Photography / Flickr

Focus on the Family and LifeWay Research survey compares the happily and unhappily married.

Before a divorce, churchgoers in troubled marriages look a lot like their happily married counterparts at church—participating, serving, and leading at similar rates.

After a divorce, the differences can be stark. Twenty percent have dropped out of church entirely. In many cases, their children have stopped attending too. A third give less to the church than they did before. Their churches report leadership voids and fractured relationships.

Yet pastors may have difficulty helping couples save their marriages, because churchgoers on the brink of separation often keep quiet at church about their marital woes.

Those are among the findings of new research by Nashville-based LifeWay Research. The study, sponsored by Focus on the Family, surveyed Protestant pastors, churchgoing Americans in healthy marriages, and churchgoing Americans who divorced in the past five years.

The research points to a problem with church culture, said Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research. If couples are unwilling to discuss marital struggles at church, they don’t get the help they need.

Many couples also may not realize help is available. While most pastors say their churches offer counseling referrals and other marriage aids, fewer churchgoers agree.

“Either pastors are overstating what they’re doing or not everybody is noticing what their church is doing,” McConnell said. “There are clearly gaps in communication when people don’t even know help exists.”

Divorce is a widespread issue for Protestant churches. Forty percent of pastors say at least one couple in their church separated or divorced in the past year.

Yet among regular churchgoers—those who attend once a month or more—church involvement offers few clues to distinguish troubled marriages from healthy ones. Three months before their separation, 7 in 10 regular churchgoers who divorce are attending church once a week or more. For those in healthy marriages, the rate is 87 percent.

The two groups also report similar levels of involvement in small groups at church (46% for those who divorce vs. 41% for those in healthy marriages), serving in community ministries (34% vs. 31%), and positions of responsibility at church (39% vs. 45%).

“Many of the people who end up divorcing are average churchgoers,” McConnell said. “You’re not always going to see it coming.”

He noted one exception—regular churchgoers whose spouses do not attend. Eighteen percent of those who divorced say their former spouses never attended church three months before their separation. In contrast, just two percent of those in healthy marriages say their spouse never attends.

“It is courageous and often uncomfortable for a married individual to attend church alone, but it is also an indicator they’re going two different directions in their lives,” McConnell said.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Lisa Cannon Green – Facts & Trends